The people that in darkness sat

by Tyler Arnold

The days are slowly getting brighter, though we still find ourselves sitting deep in the dead of winter. The sun is already beginning to set a little later in the evening, and soon enough the trees and the flowers will bud and the signs of spring will appear. For me, the light and warmth can’t get here soon enough.

As we “sit in darkness” together during these dark, cold days of winter, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Epiphany hymns, “The People That in Darkness Sat” (LSB 412):

The people that in darkness sat
A glorious light have seen;
The light has shined on them who long
In shades of death have been,
In shades of death have been.

This hymn, written by a Scottish pastor named John Morison around the year 1781, was originally called “The Race that Long in Darkness Pined.” Like many hymns, it has been edited more than once over the course of time. In this case, even the title has changed.

The darkness in which “the people” “sat” — or “pined,” even — is the darkness of sin. Without the light of God’s grace, sinful humans languish in the darkness without hope — without life. Consumed by suffering and despair, they sit in a darkness created by their own frailty and by external realities that are thrust upon them, and they lament.

The people that in darkness sat … remain entrenched in despair without any semblance of hope

The people that in darkness sat … suffer in the midst of their own tragedies, whether they are known to others or not.

The people that in darkness sat … find that joy is especially elusive and those things that are supposed to bring it, don’t.

The people that in darkness sat … struggle to make sense out of the tragedy and misery they experience in their lives and this fallen world.

The people that in darkness sat … a glorious light have NOT seen.

Darkness consumes those in its midst. We can’t see what we want when it’s dark. We can’t find what we need when it’s dark. We rummage around with our arms out before us, feeling for what we are after with hopes that we can somehow put our hands on it. Darkness is more than a challenge for those who feel consumed by it. It is utter hopelessness. There is nothing worse.

If darkness is often associated with death, then light is similarly associated with life. Epiphany is the season of God’s “appearing,” where Jesus makes Himself known as the light of the world that no darkness can overcome (John 8:12; John 1:5). He reveals Himself as the “lamp to my feet and the light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). He manifests the truth that “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

At Christmas, we celebrate how God pierced into this dark world and became man for the sake of humanity. During the season of Epiphany, we celebrate how this man Jesus was made known to us as the God of light in a world veiled in the darkness of sin, death and despair.

It’s important, then, that we keep on singing beyond the first line of my favorite Epiphany hymn:

… A glorious light have seen;
The light has shined on them who long
In shades of death have been,
In shades of death have been.

In shades of death we HAVE BEEN — but not anymore. We Christians are no longer consumed by death’s darkness. No, the source of all light — the light who IS Christ — shines brightly upon us. The darkness in which He was nailed to the cross on Good Friday has been undone by His death and resurrection. Our true light has been revealed. For that reason, no matter the season, our days are always getting brighter.

The Rev. Tyler Arnold is senior pastor at Christ Lutheran Church — Platte Woods, Mo. He is also a Collegium Fellow for DOXOLOGY — the Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel.

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